When you get to a certain place with your dance company, you begin to say, ‘What’s next?’ ” says Eileen Riddle, president of the board for the Ventura County Ballet Company. After 14 years of providing classical ballet performances and instruction to the Ventura community, “What’s next?” was answered in the fall of 2012 with the elite dance ensemble DAnce ART. Consisting of the company’s top dancers, as well as carefully vetted professionals, DAnce ART is a contemporary arm of VCBC and was founded, in part, to collaborate with other organizations to mix dance and the arts in novel ways. Riddle admits the troupe is a bit “edgy,” but that was the point: to break ballet out of its upper-crust mold and make it inventive, modern and more accessible.
Which isn’t to say that VCBC is abandoning classical ballet. The company’s school, Ballet Academy Ventura, continues to serve some 250 students, ranging in age from 2 to 18 years, while its winter and spring performances will always be classical ballet mainstays. By adding DAnce ART to the mix, there’s just more opportunity to reach the public with fresh and interesting choreography.
“One of the reasons we formed DAnce ART was to expand our audience,” explains Kathleen Noblin, VCBC’s founder and executive director. “And for the community, I think it broadens their appreciation for ballet as an art form.”
The focus is on contemporary pieces featuring the very best dancers in the company (there are usually around 20 to choose from), although outside professionals are hired as needed. VCBC has had male dancers in the past, but the company is largely made up of women, so male leads and occasionally experienced female principals might come from neighboring companies, such as Santa Barbara’s State Street Ballet, or even world-renowned companies like the Joffrey Ballet or the Royal Ballet. But DAnce ART hires from within whenever possible, making a position in the troupe a coveted one — and an excellent motivator for students. “The younger dancers are eager to participate,” says Riddle. Performing with accomplished professionals is an invaluable experience for a young ballerina, and the original work that makes up DAnce ART’s repertoire gives its dancers a more diverse portfolio. In the competitive world of dance, those are tangible advantages.
The troupe’s dancers will put their more traditional talents on display this winter when they take to the stage, beside other VCBC artists, in this season’s production of The Nutcracker. This is the company’s 15th anniversary performance, and it will showcase more than 110 dancers, including several professionals with pedigrees from the Joffrey Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Moscow Classical Ballet and State Street Ballet. Most remarkable, perhaps, will be a special appearance by 92-year-old art patron, community activist and VCBC board member Helen Yunker, who plays a maid in Act I.
This year’s Nutcracker will also feature a full 52-piece Ventura College Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Robert E. Lawson (department chair of music at Ventura College and conductor of the Santa Clarita Symphony) and singing by the Ventura College Chorale. Video special effects, lavish scenery and sumptuous costumes should make for a magical evening that all ages can enjoy. “It is a program of outstanding staging and talent that used to be only available in Los Angeles, but now is in our own backyard,” Noblin states proudly. Two venues will host the ballet: the Oxnard Performing Arts Center on Nov. 23 and 24 and Ventura College Performing Arts Center on Dec. 21 and 22.
DAnce ART started rehearsals for its first performance immediately following last year’s Nutcracker, and debuted on stage to benefit the Ventura Film Society in February. The society was screening First Position, a documentary about ballet dancers competing in the Youth America Grand Prix. The ensemble performed a short piece to Frank Sinatra’s American Beauty Rose before the film started and displayed its skills at the barre. Later, one of the dancers talked about her own experience at the Grand Prix. The audience was enthralled and DAnce ART helped the society raise much-needed funds. In July, the group performed during a Focus on the Masters benefit, ‘Convergence,’ in which ArtWalk 2013 honoree Gerd Koch’s paintings were projected onto a stage. Dancers, bathed in art, moved to the music of local composer Miguel del Aguila, who, along with local violinist Yue Deng, also performed.
So far, all of Dance ART’s projects have been gratis, to help others with fundraising and to see if the idea would catch fire. With two solid successes to point toward, the goal now is to find sponsorship. DAnce ART’s next gig will most likely be for the Ventura Film Society, and Riddle and Noblin would like to see the troupe do shows beyond Ventura County. “I think L.A. audiences would enjoy a piece like Convergence, for example,” says Riddle. And, of course, they’d love to work with other local artists to foster an appreciation for all the arts.
This marriage of several art forms exemplifies the collaborative spirit that is at the heart of DAnce ART. “Collaboration and networking are the only way that the arts can survive,” says Noblin. “So if we can collaborate with other arts organizations we can raise money for them and further our brand.” By folding ballet into film, painting, sculpture, music (naturally) and other artistic endeavors, DAnce ART hopes to transform the way people think about ballet, and bring it to audiences that might be less inclined to explore it in a more traditional format. As Noblin says, “When people see ballet dancers moving in these free, modern ways, they realize they can enjoy it.”
DAnce ART can be seen performing “Convergence,” in a film presentation on Dec. 7 at the Ojai Playhouse Theater. The Nutcracker opens this weekend at the Oxnard Performing Arts Center.